MLS vs. Klinsmann: Who needs whom?

By Paul Kennedy

So MLS commissioner Don Garber was right. It's not personal between him and Jurgen Klinsmann. It's the entire MLS against Klinsmann, or so it seems.

On Friday, Jeff Carlisle at ESPN FC reported Garber's tirade on a media conference call a month ago wasn't just directed at Klinsmann for his comments expressing disappointment with the decision of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley to return home to MLS at the peak of their careers. MLS owners are furious with Klinsmann and his staff for advising youth national team players to consider bypassing MLS for Europe.

As Seattle Sounders general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer put it, it's hard enough for MLS clubs to compete with foreign clubs seeking to poach their academy players -- just last week it was reported Manchester United had signed 17-year-old Canadian Josh Doughty from RSL AZ -- without having the national team coach pushing them to sign with a foreign club. Few MLS owners have been around American soccer as long as Hanauer, who suggested that he and his MLS partners will have to "reconsider their investment in youth development" if Klinsmann doesn't stop pushing players abroad.

Klinsmann's intentions aren't evil. He isn't suggesting that every player move to Europe. "Some kids would benefit from the environment in Europe," Klinsmann said in a statement a U.S. Soccer spokesperson provided to ESPN FC, "while others are best suited to continue their growth in MLS." But the idea of a national team coach suggesting that young players move abroad and getting away with it would be unimaginable in any major soccer nation.

But Hanauer's threat raises a question. MLS clubs are investing in youth development for what? Sure, the academy and affiliate programs clubs have developed are important commercial ventures, fostering community relations and building the next generation of fans, but these development programs have had for the most part little impact on their competitiveness of their first teams. Given MLS roster rules -- eight foreign players per club and unlimited green-card holders -- teams can more efficiently (and cheaply) remain competitive by bringing in experienced pros from abroad than relying on their academy program to produce first-team players. New York and Portland, the 2013 regular-season conference champions, never started more than a couple of USA-eligible Americans. Just three Homegrown players -- one each from the LA Galaxy, New England Revolution and Sounders -- should be starting in the 2014 MLS conference finals that begin next Sunday. After this year's SuperDraft, the general manager of an MLS club with one of the better known academy programs stated to me he didn't have an academy player who would make his first team 18 in the next five years.

That isn't to say MLS clubs have been dissuaded from investing in player development. Just the opposite, the irritation of MLS owners to Klinsmann's stance stems from the fact that they are having to double down on player development. The advent of MLS second teams -- the Galaxy's Los Dos and their copy cats popping up in USL PRO -- may be the most significant move in player development in the history of American soccer. It's another nail in the coffin for college soccer as MLS clubs finally have a place to park their Homegrown players -- not to mention test out their academy players in a meaningful way, offering them an extended tryout.

All this comes as the fight for American talent intensifies at younger and younger ages. For years, hockey players ages 14 and 15 have had to choose between pro and college paths, choosing between Junior A hockey, viewed as professional by the NCAA, and other circuits the NCAA deemed amateur. It should be viewed as a sign of the growing maturity of American soccer that players 14 and 15 are having to make the same decisions, but not just choosing between the pros and college, but MLS and Europe or Mexico.

The problem for MLS clubs is that the bargaining table is tilted against them. For all the talk about the lack of free agency within single-entity MLS for players at the end of their contracts, the lack of free agency for teens seeking to turn pro is a huge disadvantage for MLS clubs. Given the choice between one club from Column A -- the club that holds his Homegrown rights in the case of a player in an MLS academy program or the club that holds SuperDraft rights for a player who otherwise signs with MLS -- and an infinite number of foreign clubs from Column B -- all willing to sweet talk him into moving in with them -- it's easy to see why a player is pushed abroad.

The current U.S. under-17 national team Richie Williams is working with is arguably the most talented group to come along since the Landon Donovan-led team took fourth place at the 1999 Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand. That group included five future World Cup players, only one of whom started out playing abroad: Donovan, who bailed on Bayer Leverkusen after a year. DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey both played in MLS before moving to Europe, Kyle Beckerman has stayed in MLS his entire career, and Oguchi Onyewu started out in college at Clemson before moving to Metz in France.

The scary proposition is that this exceptional generation Williams has coming through the pipeline could all be gone to Europe or Mexico before MLS knew what happened. MLS owners reworked their rules so Dempsey and Bradley could return home. They must put in place rules so that the American Lionel Messi who will be coming along sooner rather than later doesn't get away like Williams' young phenoms in Bradenton have.
25 comments about "MLS vs. Klinsmann: Who needs whom?".
  1. R2 Dad, November 16, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.

    Sorry PK, but MLS owners will never, ever sign up "the American Lionel Messi". Messi was positively dwarf-ish when he entered La Massa, had to take growth hormones--this is NOT the profile of an MLS player. Look at Lee Nguyen, who just got 12 minutes at the full national level last week and provided a spart. At 5'8" he's on the short side, was 5'2" as a teenager--MLS wasn't knocking down his door then. There are plenty of slight teenagers who are quick-thinking, quick-footed, and could flourish as an adult against a Columbia or Spain but their path to the professionals won't be in the US. How can it be? Neither our club nor U coaches/scouts value those traits.

  2. Edgar Soudek, November 16, 2014 at 5:29 p.m.

    Get rid of Klinsdumbum NOW before he completely drags down our Mens' National
    Team...imagine what he would do with the Ladies' Team...they would be ranked 25th within a year with Klinsdud's tactical advice....

  3. Lou vulovich, November 16, 2014 at 5:37 p.m.

    Great point R2Dad. How will they spot Messi looking for LEBRON, he would end up playing in ethnic leagues or on the bench at some college due to his lack of physical attributes. ( what the typical coach in the USA would say)
    As for MLS owners complaining about loosing young players is there a professional league in the world with fewer under 20 year olds then the MLS. Playing regularly. ?????

  4. Lou vulovich, November 16, 2014 at 5:45 p.m.

    Sorry forgot to mention Messi could not flourish as a young player in the US. He would be told he is too selfish,too small and he would have to develop his right foot.

  5. Chris Wirth, November 16, 2014 at 7:22 p.m.

    Sounds like a bunch of wealthy owners, who are used to getting their own way, would like the rules to be changed to protect them. Instead, how about they create an Academy experience that has young players clamoring to stay for their own benefit instead of looking for better training and exposure elsewhere? Oh, they are trying? Well, boo hoo. As you have no doubt said yourselves to others, this is business. Call us when you're ready for the Big Leagues.

  6. Eric Schmitt, November 16, 2014 at 7:39 p.m.

    Look, this is really a fairly simple conflict of interest issue. What Klinsmann needs is not necessarily what MLS wants and vice versa. MLS wants to grow the league as quickly as possible, which means keeping as many youth program and MNT level players as possible at home. Klinsmann wants the players competing at the highest level possible in order to prepare them for international duty, and that is definitely not MLS at this point. It may be someday but not now. The solution, for now, will be somewhere in the middle. It will mean a careful balance of players who stay home, players who go abroad early and stay there, and players who go abroad for a while and come back. The sooner both sides realize this, the sooner we'll quit this petty squabbling and get on with growing the game.

  7. Aresenal Fan, November 16, 2014 at 8:34 p.m.

    Chris, exactly.MLS needs to hire coaching staffs with proven records of developing and ID talent. By that I mean get them from out of the states instead of hiring a bunch of ex MLS players who clearly don't know what they are doing. Nobody would be leaving if MLS care to do that.

  8. Andrew Bermant, November 16, 2014 at 9:25 p.m.

    R2 Dad is exactly right. Our most technically and tactically skilled youth players are never even looked at by the MLS team and their academies or even our mediocre college program. I was hopeful that Klinsmann would change the bigger, faster is better attitude and lead our youth program to develop these players. But I was wrong. In the end, its a complete failure of the USSF.

  9. Andrew Bermant, November 16, 2014 at 9:27 p.m.

    One other thing: If Richie William's National U17 is so great, why does it not include one, just one, of the talented kids from the Santa Barbara Soccer Club who have won the USYSA National Championships 3 times in the last 5 years?

  10. beautiful game, November 16, 2014 at 9:50 p.m.

    Except for a few exceptions ,home grown players will hardly ever achieve top stature on the international scene. Developing the overall Soccer IQ is key; and the MLS is not the place for it.

  11. beautiful game, November 16, 2014 at 9:56 p.m.

    These will never be a CR7 or Messi types in the U.S. If such talent is spotted in a U12 player, be sure Europe will be the first offering a contract. We had a glimpse of talent in Freddy Adu, whom the league decided to field at 14; a delinquent and almost criminal decision to play a 14 year old against adults. Everywhere else there is a minimum age limit.

  12. Xavi Hernandez , November 16, 2014 at 10:55 p.m.

    Personal experience with US soccer: Super-technical son continuously told he's too small, weak and slow for soccer beginning at age 11, quits organized soccer at 15 and plays informally with immigrant teams. Goes to Brazil at 17 for the summer and impresses. Offered a one-week trial at Gremio at 18, gets a gap year from college to give it a try, tickets purchased, decides at the last second that he loves soccer but can't stand any of the people running it; cumulative effect of the toxic US soccer environment. Takes up track and field and at 18 as a ripped 5'9" college freshman runs a 50.3 open 400m and 1:55 open 800m. Not so small and slow anymore. Still spends hours with the ball on his own for fun and stress relief. Misses the game terribly but none of the people that run it.

  13. BJ Genovese, November 16, 2014 at 11:19 p.m.

    MLS has one residential academy as far as I can tell. That tells you just how serious they are. LG was awesome the other day for his 8 minutes. It warmed my heart to read he was only 5' 2" as a teen. I hope everyone in places of infuence realize that as well. Not all the kids in the US with talent have the fortune of dual citizenship and can bail to another country. They gotta grind it out here and hope they get a real coach.

  14. Kent James, November 17, 2014 at 1:27 a.m.

    The proper headline should read "Who needs whom more?", since they both need each other. Long term, the US MNT needs the MLS to be a strong league; in the meantime, as JK says, individual players may need to go to Europe (but they all shouldn't go). This is a typical development problem; stay at the local club and play a prominent role, or play a supporting (or even reserve) role at a bigger club. Never an easy question, and the right answer for the individual may not be the right answer for the league/US MNT. JK needs to be more tactful in his pronouncements; the MLS and JK need to work together to develop American talent (which should benefit both).

  15. Miguel Dedo, November 17, 2014 at 9:36 a.m.

    Same old same old trite complaint. People in charge of US soccer -- from coaching 4-years old to pros -- look for size and strength only, cannot appreciate real soccer talent/potential. Does anyone have another idea? US complaining about soccer has less imagination than USS playing soccer. Xavi's son finds Brazilian soccer people as detestable as US, switches to track where the individual is supreme. Now if I were in charge ...

  16. Lou vulovich, November 17, 2014 at 9:51 a.m.

    So there is a MLS executive saying that he does not have one player in his academy that will break into the top 18 professionals in the next (5) years.
    Clearly he is a complete idiot, but very typical of the soccer mentality of US soccer. Run buy a bunch of now nothing coaches and executives full of arrogance who think their high school, college soccer and a few years of early MLS armature league qualifies them to coach and manage the youth soccer in this country.
    The only criticism I have for MLS owners is that while you are spending millions in youth development who did you hire to develop your youth. I bet that MLS executive does not know the names of 5 of his academy players.
    Take off your sunglasses and maybe you will see something you.

  17. James Froehlich, November 17, 2014 at 10:31 a.m.

    Great comments all!! Today just less than 40% of MLS rosters are foreign born players with the starting lineups considerably higher. So much for MLS developing home-grown players!! The owners whine about JK's comments but their own coaches ignore home grown talent and instead opt for second and third rate foreigners. Chicago Fire is a perfect example. Victor Pineda and Benji Joya were on their roster all year but were ignored for most of the season despite Joya's success with the US youth teams and Pineda's success in a lower division league. The problem here is an old line coach, Frank Yallop, disconnected from an owner, Andrew Hauptman, who knows nothing about soccer. Ignoring the chance to develop home grown players occurred all occurred while Chicago was wallowing near the bottom of the league. Yeah, young stars, stay in MLS where you can be paid squat and ignored rather than move to Mexico or Europe! MLS owners --- clean up your own house or just shut up!

  18. Michael Borga, November 17, 2014 at 10:50 a.m.

    Lou, just imagine how great Messi would be if he had a right foot?????

  19. Jake Brodesky, November 17, 2014 at 12:38 p.m.

    MLS had no problem being a big fish in a small pond, by taking local talent from local clubs here in the US. But when they realize they are part of a larger global market, and are in fact not such big fish, they cry out, "That's not fair!". Hmmmmm...

  20. Lou vulovich, November 17, 2014 at 12:42 p.m.

    Michael. What makes a lefty great is just that he is a lefty, once you start developing his right foot early you destroy all the advantage of being a left footed player. All great players are predominantly one footed, particularly left footed players, Messi,Robben, Jamie's R, Di Maria. Maradona.
    There is not one good left footed player in the US. Because at 8 or 10 or 12 someone is trying to develop their right foot and destroying their future.
    You leave a lefty alone to develop his style
    He only needs to learn to shoot a little. Once his game is fully developed. Not before

  21. Allan Lindh, November 17, 2014 at 1:07 p.m.

    It's not so complicated. Put a restriction on how many players an MLS team can have on the field that are not eligible to play for USMNT. Then you can stop paying so much money to foreign players, and pay it to the US players on the field. Who wants to sign for an MLS team, so they can look forward to being paid $35K a year?

  22. Frank Cardone, November 17, 2014 at 6:40 p.m.

    It is a multi-faceted and complex problem. I would like to see more American players in MLS and, for that matter, on the USMNT. I resent JK placing no fewer than five German-Americans on the roster, especially the thug Jermaine Jones who was virtually banned from Germany because of his thuggish play. His goal in the World Cup meant nothing to me. MLS should require more true Americans on their rosters and USSF should redirect JK's efforts to finding home grown talent. If he disagrees, send him on his way.

  23. beautiful game, November 17, 2014 at 8:50 p.m.

    Mike B, FYI, Messi has a right foot and uses it, but prefers the left. On the contrary, CR7 prefers the right foot. So what is your point?

    Way to go Mr. Cardone, we are loaded with talent that doesn't seem to surface in numbers and quality and you want coach K to find the youngsters at U-16 level? It's the USSF's responsible to develop a system of investment returns; which is hardly happening.

  24. Bill Jones, November 17, 2014 at 11:28 p.m.

    James, you are absolutely right!! Why do we insist on hoping that one day each MLS team will scout/develop and play homegrowns in the MLS ?? It is extremely clear what the MLS purpose is at the moment. Maximize profits now. Its easier and cost effective to bring in established stars and cheap South Americans than it is to invest in Top level scouting, training, coaches for Academy. Why do some people make excuses for this league?? "oh, MLS is still young". We should already have more Homegronws on MLS rosters. We should already have league stars developed here. The league is still weak so therefore easier to accomplish this. We are reminded of how weak we are every year at ConcaChampions. If MLS Academies cant provide their top teams consistently with talent now what makes us think it will in 10 years, when it is projected we will be a top level league worldwide?? Are MLS Academies going to magically catch up??

  25. James Madison, November 21, 2014 at 5:28 p.m.

    From a development perspective, maybe someone can explain to me why it makes sense for MLS to pay big bucks to lure Dempsey and Bradley home instead of using the money to pay promising young players. It's like paying for Beckham and Keane---headliners to attracdt attendance to put bucks in the pocket. As Eruc Schmitt wrote, the challenge is to identify the common interes in making money. The owners need to understand that the better the MNT does the better their attendance and collateral revenue stgreams will be.

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